Three UN bodies have joined forces this June to found the African Women Leaders Network. African women are often held up as the crucial players in community, governance, development, and peace programs throughout the Continent. The “Sustainable Development Goals” and the “Africa Agenda 2063” have both highlighted the role of women in everything from peacekeeping to food security to responses towards climate change.
Too rarely, however, has this emphasis translated into ongoing support for women leaders. In much of the Continent, African women face obstacles which impede them from taking on leadership roles. There are relatively few women in high-ranking government or business positions in Africa. It is only in the last decade that African women have broken into the top tier of government and started to make strides in increasing their representation. Of particular note, women have increased their political representation most markedly in Rwanda and South Africa, currently comprising 61% and over 40% of MP positions, respectively. Several other nations on the Continent also have over 30% female representation in their governments. Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this project, local women leaders in Africa have often worked largely in isolation, limiting their efficacy; these women in particular would greatly benefit from access to a wider network of support.
The forum held earlier this month at UN headquarters in New York City aimed to bring together women in leadership roles across Africa and across a variety of fields, including politics, journalism, business, and civil society. It was a joint project of The African Union Commission, UN Women, and Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations. They brought together a core group of about 80 women, though their vision for the network is much larger.
The newly created network intends to create bridges of solidarity between existing projects and other networks throughout the continent. Her Excellency Minata Samate-Cessouma, commissioner for the African Union, said, “We are doing this for ourselves, as we need a functioning network to belong to.” They also hope to push for better implementation of existing laws and conventions, and advocate for women’s involvement in elections. Later this year, Liberia will hold an election; President Sirleaf is the first and to date one of the only female heads of state in Africa. Kenya and Rwanda will also hold elections, whose outcomes have been described as preordained by pundits, in part because of limited participation from women voters. The Network may change that.
The organizers have already made plans to convene a second forum in Addis Ababa in spring of 2018. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women, spoke of this larger trajectory: “We emphasize that this is an open-ended network that can only succeed if it works hand in hand with current existing networks.” There are some 600 million women in Africa. If their leaders can organize more effectively, who knows what they are capable of accomplishing?